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Chertoff Announces Changes for FEMA

February 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: As the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region struggles toward recovery, the nation’s top federal disaster official today announced a system overhaul.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Secretary of Homeland Security: We have to take steps to boost operational effectiveness for routine disasters and for the truly exceptional catastrophe.

GWEN IFILL: Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said he plans to fix the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, by instituting a clear chain of command, and creating a new 1,500-member response force. Chertoff also said today he takes his share of the blame for the federal government’s bungled Katrina response.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I want to be clear. As the secretary of homeland security, I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department — good and bad.

GWEN IFILL: But he rejected former FEMA chief Michael Brown’s charges that the department shortchanged natural disaster preparation.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: People are taking the position that DHS sees itself as a terrorism-focused agency, or that there’s some huge difference between what we do when we deal with disasters that are triggered by evil acts of men and disasters that are triggered by acts of nature.

I want to tell you, I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters.

GWEN IFILL: Chertoff’s defense came after the leak of a blistering 600-page report by House investigators into the federal government’s response to the hurricane. Among other things, the investigators describe “a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses and absurdities, all cascading together, blinding us to what was coming and hobbling any collective effort to respond.” The draft report goes on to say that “four and a half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time.”

More post-Katrina trouble was on view at a Senate hearing this morning.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: You’ve brought us a lot of bad news today.

GWEN IFILL: Government Accountability Office and Homeland Security officials detailed a series of accounting flaws, fraud and mismanagement of $85 billion in Katrina-related spending.

GAO investigator Gregory Kutz said that that up to 900,000 of 2.5 million applicants received emergency cash assistance from FEMA based on faulty information.

GREGORY KUTZ: Thousands of individuals misused Social Security numbers.

FEMA also clearly made payments to many individuals using bogus property addresses.

It also appears that FEMA made tens of millions of dollars of duplicate $2,000 payments to identical registration numbers.

We understand that FEMA was under great pressure to get money as quickly as possible to disaster victims. However, for every fraudulent disbursement made, there is a new, larger group of victims, American taxpayers.

More needs to be done for future disasters to protect taxpayers from fraud and abuse for this program.

GWEN IFILL: Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner said FEMA purchased thousands of unneeded or unusable mobile homes.

RICHARD SKINNER: We determined that FEMA purchased nearly 25,000 manufactured homes at a cost of $857 million, and around 1,300 modular homes at a cost of $40 million. As seen in this aerial photo, almost 11,000 of those manufactured homes are sitting on runways in the open fields in Hope, Arkansas.

Since they were not properly stored — as you can see from this second picture — the homes are sinking in the mud and their frames are bending from sitting on trailers with no support.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: How did this happen?

RICHARD SKINNER: Essentially, it’s because FEMA did not have a plan in place to react to the massive requirements that they had with – for housing; they knew they needed housing, but they did not coordinate in a very stratified manner as to how they were going to go about providing that housing, how much of that housing they needed, and where it was needed to be placed.

They had not coordinated with the locals to find out where they can place this housing, the trailers, manufactured homes or modular homes. They bought first, then tried to fit their inventory into their decision-making processes.

GWEN IFILL: Skinner said money was also squandered on overpriced hotel rooms for evacuees.

RICHARD SKINNER: The FEMA contractor responsible for finding hotel rooms for evacuees paid a hotel in New York City its published rate of $438 per night.

GWEN IFILL: A court in New Orleans today gave FEMA permission to stop paying the hotel bills for 12,000 families left homeless by the hurricane. Hearings into the federal Katrina response continue tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the emerging details on what has gone right and wrong with the nation’s disaster response, I’m joined by two who have been in the middle of it all. Richard Falkenrath served as deputy homeland security adviser to the president until mid-2004. He’s now with the Brookings Institution. And Craig Fugate is director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Gentlemen, welcome.

CRAIG FUGATE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We heard in this report these terms: mistakes, misjudgments, lapses. We’re beginning to get the sense this is scratching the surface, Mr. Falkenrath?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, I think the report does more than scratch the surface. Some of it has been released — not all of the 600 pages done by the House. And the parts that I was able to read are fairly detailed. And I learned some new information about what was going on in the middle of this crisis, what was happening at the federal level between DHS and the White House and at the local level, particularly around New Orleans. And so I think their report does more than scratch the surface.

GWEN IFILL: But does it do real damage to the system as it exists right now?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I don’t think this report itself does damage. In fact, I think it will help precipitate some improvement. I mean, the system was not prepared to deal with this catastrophe. That’s very clear to everyone who has watched this. And it needed to be. It was a failure of every level of government. And this report reveals that in a way that needs to be revealed that hopefully will lead to improvements down the line.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Fugate, you were in town today for a meeting of emergency management officials. You heard not only Michael Chertoff speak but also later today White House advisor Frances Townsend spoke and offered a pretty vigorous defense of the president — said he was very aware of what was going on all the time. What did you think? What was the reaction in the room today?

CRAIG FUGATE: I think everybody is talking about what went wrong and who is responsible. And we learned from Hurricane Andrew, the late Gov. Chiles did, that that’s really not going to solve the problem. What we need to do is determine what we need to do better next time and move forward.

We seem to be spending a lot of effort trying to identify people that were responsible. Yet, I think the underlying inherent problems were existing well before this disaster. I think that a structured emergency management is not based upon local and state emergency management programs. Personal preparedness and a strong federal coordinated response to those governors are what we saw; it was fragmented.

And we need to reduce those errors, reduce the fragments, and work more effectively as a team.

GWEN IFILL: How do you know how to fix next if you can’t figure out what went wrong last time?

CRAIG FUGATE: I think in finding out what went wrong last time I would be less concerned about identifying which individuals as much as what were the systemic issues that happened.

In any disaster you’re going to have a multitude of issues that go wrong. That’s the nature of disaster. The true test of the team is: how well you capture that information; correct things on the fly; and really focus on the needs of the victims and those initial responders. And I think that is something that we need to spend more time on.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Falkenrath, looking back, if you don’t mind if I look back just for a little while longer, Mr. Fugate, how much of this was avoidable?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, the force of the storm was not avoidable. I mean it hit the Gulf Coast, and it was going to do enormous destruction to the Gulf Coast. There’s no question about that. The stranded population inside New Orleans was avoidable. I mean, a proper evacuation plan conceivably could have gotten a lot of those people out. And that is really what I think made this disaster different than many others that we’ve endured including the state of Florida. They’ve had a lot.

There were hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the flooded city and stuck there for days without safety, without basic supplies, and that’s just not unacceptable in America.

A proper evacuation prior to landfall, acting on the warnings that were coming from the National Weather Service would have made a difference as it has in many other hurricanes where the impacted population is successfully evacuated.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Fugate, one of the things Mr. Chertoff talked today about was establishing a clear chain of command, which probably a lot of Americans would be surprised to know did not exist.

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I think the question is: Where did it not exist? In my state I know it does exist. It’s very clear in our statutes that the local elected officials are in charge of their jurisdiction until the governor declares an emergency. And then he becomes our in state commander. We don’t have those questions in Florida.

I think it goes back to what are the responsibilities of our local officials and state officials to be part of this team rather than being dependent upon a federal response to address all of the challenges. If we take off local government and federal government from the table and all the resources and capabilities, you and I could not afford what it will cost us as citizens to build a response that’s entirely based upon our federal partners.

GWEN IFILL: So, do you agree with Mr. Fugate that maybe the federal government should be following the state model?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, and they need to get closer. And I accept the point that Florida has it’s act together in this respect; the federal government did not. I mean, there were serious problems with the chain of command during Katrina, and that’s really come out. Secretary Chertoff as much admitted it today. The undersecretary of homeland security who works for him, not reporting to him but reporting straight to the White House that’s unacceptable.

You had problems also revealed in the House commission between the Department of Defense units deployed into the area around New Orleans and the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA people who were there. They were operating under separate authorities, not on exactly the same page so, yes, at the federal government’s level there were problems with command and control.

GWEN IFILL: As someone, Mr. Fugate, who was in charge of disaster response for Hurricane Dennis, Hurricane Andrew, do you look at what FEMA is doing and see that it is useful to you? Is there a way that FEMA can be more useful? Was it useful in those cases?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I wasn’t director for Hurricane Andrew; I’ve only been Gov. Bush’s emergency management director since about 2001.

GWEN IFILL: Sorry.

CRAIG FUGATE: But the answer is FEMA is a partner. And a partnership means you have to bring everybody’s strength and weaknesses to the table and you minimize your weaknesses and you maximize your strengths.

I think over time we have to ask ourselves as a nation: What is the role of the federal government? Many disasters have only risen to the level of financial reimbursement. Very few disasters ever reached a level of an actual federal response and support of local and state governments. It’s the one thing we’re least practiced at; it’s the one thing that we have the least experience at.

But the one thing we know — if the federal government in responding to a governor and supporting that governor are not effective in being able to provide a centralized coordinated place for all of that coordination to take place — look how big the federal government and how many aspects of it do respond — it would overwhelm a state and minimize their chances of being successful in fast-moving, complex disasters.

GWEN IFILL: Does it matter to you from where you sit whether FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security or not?

CRAIG FUGATE: I’ve been asked that many times and I’m going, “It’s an acronym.” What I’m concerned about and what I want and what my governor expects is that when we work with our federal partners we have a single point of contact that is authorized and empowered by the president to make those decisions.

GWEN IFILL: And it doesn’t matter where that point of contact is?

CRAIG FUGATE: What matters is, is that that is clearly delineated within the federal organization and that all the federal family works to support the governor through the national response plan. And that, I think, is the lessons that I think you’re seeing many people talk about what Secretary Chertoff and other people say. That was not clear in Katrina. We did not have that unifying force of all of our federal assets that single person that could make those decisions and implement the plan in support of a governor on behalf of the president.

GWEN IFILL: Does it matter who FEMA reports to, Mr. Falkenrath?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I think it does. FEMA should report to the secretary of homeland security. That’s the structure that makes sense.

There was nothing in the failures of Katrina that I believe derived from its location in the Department of Homeland Security. So in that respect I think we really agree.

If you were to take it out at this point, it would be very problematic in a lot of respects. You’d have essentially two separate response systems for different kinds of disasters. You’d have one for hurricanes and earthquakes and you’d have another for terrorist attacks, and that really doesn’t make any sense.

These folks, the folks in the field at the state level really need to have one person that they know they’re going to be working with and irrespective of the sort of catastrophe we’re facing.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised to hear Mr. Brown say last week that he did not speak to or contact or notify Mr. Chertoff in the hours after Katrina became serious?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Yes I thought it was outrageous.

GWEN IFILL: What about that? Were you surprised at that point, Mr. Fugate?

CRAIG FUGATE: Yeah. I didn’t have any direct knowledge of that. My conversations in working with Mike Brown in 2000 for hurricanes was he was supportive and able to meet most of our challenges, again in early in 2005, but again, what Florida experienced was what we would call near-catastrophic disasters; they did not reach the point where Florida lost the ability without significant backing of federal resources to manage the response.

And I think in that case when you do have a division of command, the responsibilities of secretary and the responsibility of the FEMA director is not clearly spelled out and the organizations aren’t working as one team, you’re going to see these types of events unfold where there is no point you can go to and say: Why are we not fixing these problems as they occurred?

GWEN IFILL: We also saw today a report on Capitol Hill about fraud and waste, which happened in the wake of Katrina, people who weren’t supposed to be qualified for these debit cards getting them, people who were getting — housing that was built and not occupied. Are you surprised at that?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, not really frankly. I mean I think we’re going to find out what percentage of the aid was really fraudulently delivered. FEMA was under incredible pressure to get the money out fast right after the hurricane cleared away. And they also were acting without a clear plan. So when you combine those two things together you’re going to get some fraud and waste. It’s terrible. It needs to be investigated and stopped but it’s really not that surprising.

GWEN IFILL: Were you surprised?

CRAIG FUGATE: No. Having experienced that in Florida, but here’s the question we have to ask ourselves. For every check and balance we put in to prevent fraud, we will unintentionally slow down response to a needy victim. What is to correct balance and how do you design a system that ensures the minimal amount of fraud while ensuring that people that really need that assistance, particularly with the private sector that can meet their needs if they have the cash that we’re not impeding that; that’s a balancing act that I think sometimes our Congress has yet to give clear direction on what is the priority: Helping the public or being fully accountable for the dollars and what is the accepted balance as we design and implement these plans?

GWEN IFILL: Is it even possible to do all that?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, I think you have to accept the fact there will be fraud and it has to be kept to the minimum levels. But if you try to design a system that will not have any failures and fraud, you will ensure that many people who need help won’t get it. It’s the balancing act.

And I think it’s sometimes irresponsible to think that you can have absolutely no problems in these disaster responses. But I think what you have to do each time you have these problems is look at them and look at how they address them. You have to look at the underlying issue. What was the outcome that Congress intended by providing individual assistance? It was to get people back on their feet quickly so they no longer required much more expensive delivery of federal services.

So in correcting one issue do we cause greater cost in meeting needs because we cannot get money to victims fast enough?

GWEN IFILL: Say that you’re invested with the job to come up with a long-term vision for disaster preparedness on the federal level, where to begin?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I think you do need to reinvigorate FEMA. I mean, I think the steps outlined by Secretary Chertoff today were right. They need to grow the capacity; they need to get more people there, more people working these issues day to day.

Over time you need to give FEMA more directive authority over the other federal agencies. Right now they basically ask. They make requests to the other federal agencies: Please come and help this. We need this, and the federal agencies do it. That works well for routine disasters. In catastrophic disasters it might not work so well.

I also think FEMA needs to become more forward leaning with state or local agencies that are not as proficient as we would like. And it’s a minority of state and local agencies. Most are very proficient and can handle these disasters just fine. But there are some out there that are not sufficiently proficient. And in that case I think the federal government needs to lean on them a little bit more to get their act together.

GWEN IFILL: From the viewpoint of the states, what is your wish list?

CRAIG FUGATE: My wish list is that we focus on building a national system, not a federal system; that we hold local officials and state officials accountable as was pointed out. But we also recognize that when the federal government comes in their role is not supplant but to support because ultimately they will go home, and if we fail to build that capacity, we will be doomed to repeat that disaster at even greater costs of suffering lost of life and ultimately in costs.

So, again, as we look at the federal government’s role, we should never look at it as a federal system but as a national system built upon the most basic blocks of our government structures.

Local officials and state officials must be held accountable, particularly where they have federal dollars, to ensure that they meet their obligations to their citizens and that as taxpayers we are not subsidizing or supplanting local and state responsibility at the expense of our tax dollars.

GWEN IFILL: Craig Fugate, Richard Falkenrath, thank you both very much.